Main Engine Cut Off

New Glomar

Chris Gebhardt of NASASpaceflight published a nice article last week on Blue Origin’s ongoing New Glenn work. He also had this great little nugget of info to share regarding the ship that New Glenn will land upon:

With specific note to the ship, Mr. Henderson revealed that Blue Origin has purchased – or is very close to finalizing the purchase of – a large ship that will be used for New Glenn booster landings.

The ship in question is expected to arrive in Port Canaveral before the end of the year.

T+65: The New GEO Model, Orbital ATK’s Composite Case, Good and Bad SpaceX News

SES gives us a preview of their new GEO strategy (which may be a harbinger of the future), Orbital ATK tests a new composite case to be used for their Next-Generation Launcher and future SLS boosters, NASA approves the use of previously-flown Falcon 9 first stages, and SpaceX sets off some LOX fireworks down in McGregor, Texas.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 23 executive producers—Kris, Mike, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Guinevere, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Robert, Brian, and five anonymous—and 96 other supporters on Patreon.

Tory Bruno on Vulcan and Internal Investment

Jeff Foust of SpaceNews on a talk given by Tory Bruno yesterday:

Bruno also said he was not concerned about getting approvals from ULA’s two owners, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to continue development of Vulcan. “We generate our own operating cash and expenses and investment from our ongoing business,” he said. “Our parents — our owners — generously allow us to invest in this new platform rather than simply turn that money back into cash in their pockets.”

Bruno declined to specify how much internal investment was going into Vulcan, but noted the company has consistently been profitable. “I might hazard to argue that ULA is one of the very few space launch companies that has consistently earned a reasonable profit,” he said.

I’d love to see the numbers involved here, but the fact that Bruno is putting this out there at all says a lot.

Orbital ATK’s Next-Generation Composite Case Passes Structural Acceptance Test

The company is in early production of development hardware for its Next Generation Launch (NGL) system, and on October 27 successfully completed the structural acceptance test on the first motor high-strength composite case for this program.

The applied structural loads during the test demonstrated over 110 percent of maximum expected motor operating pressure and 110 percent of operational/flight and pre-launch compressive/tensile line loads. This full-scale motor case segment will be cast with inert solid rocket propellant in early 2018 and shipped to the launch site for check-out of ground operations.

The conceit of this press release is that the case is specifically for the Next Generation Launch system, but it’s also for SLS. SLS will debut with Shuttle-derived 5-segment boosters, but as plans currently stand, will move to upgraded boosters after a few flights.

And right now, the odds-on favorite for that booster is Orbital ATK’s Castor 1200.

The commonality between future SLS boosters and an EELV-class launch vehicle built by a company who the US Department of Defense would very much like to keep around and making solid rockets is exactly why I wouldn’t be surprised to see NGL chosen in the upcoming Launch Services Agreements awards.

Update: some great photos posted on Twitter by Orbital ATK.

NASA’s Safety Kobayashi Maru

Chris Gebhardt wrote a fantastic piece over on on SLS, Europa Clipper, EM-2, and its Mobile Launcher(s?). The Mobile Launcher is being finalized in its SLS Block 1 configuration for EM-1, after which it will need to be converted for SLS Block 1B—a 33-month process.

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel has some concerns regarding the safety of NASA’s plans beyond EM-1, but not because of the duration of the conversion of the existing Mobile Launcher, but, per, because of its total weight:

At present, the SLS Block 1 ML will end up being roughly 200,000 lbs overweight.

The recently upgraded Super Crawler, CT-2, was built to carry 18.5 million lbs, but the combined weight of the SLS Block 1 and ML at rollout will now be at least 18.7 million lbs.

That in itself is not an issue, as all NASA products have a safety factor of four. Thus, CT-2 is more than capable of carrying an 18.7 million pound ML/SLS Block 1 to Pad-B.

The bigger safety issue is post-EM-1 and all of the modifications needed to the ML for the SLS Block 1B – modifications that will bring the ML to 1-1.2 million lbs overweight – with a total SLS Block 1B/ML combined rollout weight of 19.5 to 19.7 million lbs.

That creates a lower than desired safety factor of 3.78 to 3.74.

So the debate is whether or not NASA should build a new Mobile Launcher for crewed Block 1B missions and convert the existing launcher for uncrewed cargo missions. But so far, there’s no money for that in the budget.

Furthermore, there’s the long-known-about safety issue surrounding the first flight of SLS Block 1B:

In the larger certification plan for SLS Block 1B, Europa Clipper is highly desired to fly before EM-2 – the first SLS mission to carry crew aboard Orion.

It has been noted by the ASAP, the NASA Advisory Council, and the Astronaut Office that the Astronaut Office is against any plan to fly crew on any SLS – or any rocket, for that matter – that has not flown at least once in its crew launch configuration.

Since EM-1 will use the ICPS Block 1 and EM-2 will use the EUS Block 1B, the Block 1B variant needs to fly at least once before EM-2 for NASA to adhere to its own stated safety guidelines.

If it were me, I’d take the risk of a Mobile Launcher with only a 3.74 safety factor over flying on a new upper stage. To each their own.

To review: the slip-prone EM-1 mission has to fly before the Mobile Launcher can undergo a 33-month-long conversion to fly SLS Block 1B, which needs to launch an uncrewed mission first, which would be Europa Clipper since it was mandated by Congress that Europa Clipper will fly on SLS, but that mission has two defined launch windows (June 2022 and a 2023 backup) which are tough to hit given how much work has to happen on the launcher and also given the fact that EM-1 doesn’t have a set launch date yet. Oh, and also, NASA will probably be pretty eager to get EM-2 up, since that’ll be carrying the first module for the Deep Space Gateway.

What a complicated mess.

Be sure to read the whole article for Chris’ insight into this tricky situation. According to Chris, a new Mobile Launcher wouldn’t be ready in time for Europa Clipper and doesn’t solve anything other than providing that 0.26 safety factor increase for crewed SLS Block 1B flights.

Now would be a really good time for ULA, SpaceX, and Blue Origin to start talking up how much mass they could throw towards Jupiter with Vulcan, Falcon Heavy, and New Glenn.1

  1. Given that SLS was a Congressionally-mandated launch vehicle and not a decision based on technical requirements, I’m not totally sure Europa Clipper needs the giant fairing that SLS offers. NASA has said in the past that alternative launch vehicle plans are being maintained, which I’m pretty sure means it could fit in the standard 5-meter fairings found on Vulcan and Falcon Heavy. ↩︎

SpaceX Closing in on Falcon Heavy Demo

Chris Gebhardt for with a ton of Falcon Heavy updates:

This remaining work to the TEL comes after months of working between launches and during the range-imposed downtime in July.

At the beginning of summer, a total of 60 days of work to finalize Pad-A for Falcon Heavy were needed.

As recently as 18 October, processing information on L2 noted that SpaceX had gotten that number down to just 21 days.

That number has since been reduced even lower, and more work is planned for the TEL’s reaction frame between the just-launched Koreasat-5A mission and the mid-November Zuma launch – with SpaceX hoping to finish installation of the new Tail Service Masts (TSMs) for Falcon Heavy before Zuma.

Read the whole article for more on SLC-40 work, the Falcon Heavy engine start sequence, and the final Falcon Heavy flow leading to its launch date in late December.

Thanks to October Patrons

Very special thanks to the 117 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off on Patreon for the month of October. Your support keeps this blog and podcast going, and most importantly, it keeps it independent.

And a huge thanks to the 22 executive producers of Main Engine Cut Off: Kris, Mike, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Guinevere, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Robert, and five anonymous executive producers. I could not do this without your support, and I am extremely grateful for it.

There are some great perks for those supporting on Patreon, too. At $3 a month, you get access to the MECO Headlines podcast feed—every Friday, I run through the headlines of the week and discuss the stories that didn’t make it into the main show. And at $5 a month, you’ll get advance notice of guest appearances, with the ability to contribute questions and topics to the show, and you get access to the MECO Discord—a place to hang out and discuss all things space.

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Vulcain 2.1 Arrives in Germany Ahead of December Test Firing


A Vulcain rocket engine recently arrived in Germany ahead of its first test firing in December to demonstrate new capabilities and technologies developed for Ariane 6.

Over 15 months, three Vulcain test campaigns will provide information to help engineers decide whether adjustments are needed to optimise functional and mechanical behaviour before combined tests start.

NASA Approves Use of Previously-Flown Falcon 9 Boosters

William Graham for

According to L2 coverage of extensive reviews, NASA has now cleared SpaceX to begin using flight-proven Falcon 9 vehicles to launch Dragon: CRS-13 will be the first mission to launch since this was confirmed, and will re-use the first stage of the rocket that carried CRS-11 to orbit earlier this year.

Huge news.

Insurance rates aren’t rising much (if at all) for flights with previously-flown boosters, the Air Force and the rest of the Department of Defense are very open to and actively working on certifying previously-flown boosters, and the extremely-risk-averse NASA has approved their use.

Getting through the bureaucratic red tape was one of the more recent goal post movements by reusability doubters. There goes that.

The biggest piece of work left for SpaceX is to get Falcon 9 Block 5 flying, and with it, prove out minimal refurbishment between flights.